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Don't Get Mad, Get Understood: Communication and Conflict Resolution

Our society has become increasingly fast-paced and competitive. In an environment where winning a personal contest is rewarded more consistently than solving a group problem, it is no surprise that we have developed an infinite capacity for miscommunication. Sometimes deliberate misunderstanding is a method of increasing personal prestige and power, but the conflicts that arise can cripple a situation and almost work to the detriment of the organization. When such conflicts are present, productivity can slip since workers are far less likely to function together, and no conflict exists in a vacuum. The best course to take is to try to head off miscommunication and misunderstanding before they blossom into conflicts. Obviate conflicts as they occur by training people to find root causes and listen to each other. Engage in “real communication,” not verbiage. Real communication takes place when we do not judge, evaluate, approve, or disapprove before we truly understand the other person.

Watch for breakdowns in communication. We tend to evaluate a situation primarily and initially from our own personal bias, thus laying the first bricks of our interpersonal barriers. When we avoid this evaluative tendency and listen with understanding we are “actively” listening. Active listening is seeing ideas and attitudes from the other peoples’ points of view, and temporarily achieving their frame of reference to the subject.

If you think this is an easy process, reevaluate! True objectivity demands an observer with no opinions. The best, most realistic, and profitable actions we can take are those which force us to temporarily change sides, not those that make us pretend an objectivity that cannot exist.

Break the conflict pattern by changing the rules. Have you ever considered your actual level of understanding? Try the following as a reality test. Next time you find yourself in an escalating argument, stop and institute a rule formulated by Carl Rogers: “Each person can speak for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feeling of the previous speaker accurately — and to that person’s satisfaction.”

To do this, it’s necessary for each person to understand and thoroughly consider the other person’s frame of reference. Behaviorally, this is much harder than one might suspect. There are two hidden ego risks to this kind of approach that may be factors: fear of being influenced by the other person, and fear that you might actually agree with the other side and have to change your own opinion. Thus listening can be perceived as dangerous and it can take courage. Although a combatant may insist, “I am listening!", in most heated arguments the person “listening” is only half doing so, since much of their energy is being spent rehearsing telling points for rebuttal later.

If you institute Rogers’ rule in the middle of an argument or conflict, you may find that your own comments will need to be revised. The blind emotion needs to go out of the discussion, as the perceived points of difference are being reduced. A decrease will occur in the actual differences, in exaggerated statements, sweeping generalizations, and judgmental behavior. On the other hand, positive attitudes toward a resolution develop and problem- solving becomes both possible and probable.

Bring in a mediator to keep things on track. When emotions are running high it becomes most difficult yet most important to achieve this frame of reference. Sometimes a person who is able to lay aside his feelings and judgments may be useful. Listening to the conflict with a fresh ear, he may be able to clarify what he hears from each side or group. A constant reiteration of the most recent statement (“I think you mean _____") by the mediator can cool things down and reinforce the attempts at listening.

At this point in the process, participants usually know whether or not they have a workable consensus. Most arguments in a work setting come down to differences in procedure and approach, and once the emotion has been stripped away, the common goals and desire for a workable solution will become evident. Sometimes, however, the differences that remain are not of a rational nature or an easily understandable quality — they are real differences in basic values. If this point is reached, a full confrontation may need to develop before the participants can settle down to hammering out a consensus. Confrontation, if carefully and intelligently mediated, can be a positive process. Once the inevitable dust settles, there will be room to develop a workable understanding.

Additionally, the possibility exists that the difference in opinion, although real, has more to do with personal style and bias than the actual issue at hand. In other words, it may be a difference,but one that may not be necessary to work through.

Check for common goals or values. If, after listening carefully to the sides, you find the conflict stems from different value assumptions and premises, there is no longer any misunderstanding. Both sides have indicated that they fully comprehend their opponent’s alternatives, and believe them to be inappropriate. At this point, the participants must delineatewhat they do agree on. The conflict or disagreement becomes, instead, a negotiation process,starting with those aspects that both sides can agree upon as a working premise, and moving on to other areas which demand increasing amounts of compromise. At appropriate points in the growing cooperation, reiterate the need to work together.

Leave the door open for revision. Once the compromises have been made to allow for a joint mode of action, one or both parties may feel that they have “given up” a point. Make it clear that the course of action will be followed, but will be subject to examination and review. This keeps the options open and fluid, and sets up the possibility of developing more effective means to proceed in the future.

Learning and practicing these skills demands a break with one’s ingrained behavioral patterns of handling conflict. Both combative adrenalin reactions and the “easy” road of side-stepping a necessary confrontation need to be avoided. Change can only occur through practice and repetition. If one can successfully realize another’s point of view and treat that person with humanity and dignity, there is greater probability that they will return the favor.